The Technology of Performance

guestwriter1            In its initial version Guest Writer’s Revenge was more like a karaoke performance, with words appearing on a monitor so participants could read along. Over time, its developer, Colin Bright Eagle O’Keefe, has changed the format of the computer program (Guest Writer) considerably.

Guest Writer’s debut performance in April as part of the Yeah, No, I Mean It exhibition at La Esquina had more of a MadLib feel. The program would substitute selected words in a script with other, unexpected ones and audience members performed and interacted together.

The ultimate ambition for Guest Writer is to see if a computer program can write original television scripts, specifically sitcoms. This makes it one of the first of its kind. Currently existing programs, called storywriters, mostly spit out summaries but do not generate original dialogue. Guest Writer could potentially take this next step – but it has a lot to learn first.

Through a meticulous annotation process of keying in entire scripts line by line – explaining each word, how that word relates to the other words, which character said it etc. – the program can learn a story formula. This painstaking process has been simplified by O’Keefe, but it still takes around four hours to enter one script.guestwriter3
O’Keefe and team members Charlie Mylie and Lindsey Griffith are still currently loading scripts into the program, so that it can learn how story arcs and scenes work and eventually create it’s own mix from these materials. Since Guest Writer is one-of-a-kind, every step in the process has been an experiment.

There has also been a shift in the nature of the content loaded into the program. “It was a big turning point – because we realized sitcoms aren’t funny. Especially not funny because of the content, [though] the delivery and the characters can be funny” says Mylie, who, with collaborating performer Griffith, will be bringing Guest Writer’s scripts to life.

guestwriter2“After our breakthrough… we thought it would be funny if the content we input wasn’t funny” says Griffith. For the performance in April they used scripts from Charmed and Star Trek and they learned that “All the demons and magic and jargon are ripe for comedy”.

Griffith and Mylie are popular local performance artists on a path to wider acclaim, who specialize in creating playful and imaginative environments. That is the spirit that will inhabit these performances as well. The initial plan was for the performances to use Mylie and Griffith’s  hand-made puppets as actors. While these charming puppets will still be featured, the team is expanding their ideas to perhaps involve audience members more, asking them to make the sound effects, giving them a word to scream every time they hear it or having them control the puppets, for example.

Griffith and Mylie’s human element is undoubtedly what will make Guest Writer’s work compelling: “Our end is the technology of performance, thinking about how something – even if it is bad – you can make better just by being involved. People are obviously going to enjoy a performance more if they feel connected.”

There is no announced end point for this experimental composition and staging process as yet, but look for performances starting as early as this fall.

  • Meredith Derks

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